The Flyers will host every Western Conference team this season for the first time since the 2004-05 lockout. (USA Today Images)
Oh, Western Conference, where art thou? After laboring through last season’s 48-game schedule that featured only Eastern Conference opponents, hockey fans can be excited and re-engaged in a season with a schedule that finally features every team playing in every NHL city, an element that has been missing since the previous lockout of 2004-05.
Which games at the Wells Fargo Center are worth circling on your calendar? Here’s my take:
10. Flyers vs. Blue Jackets, Thurs., Dec. 19
This matchup may have been slightly higher on my list if Ilya Bryzgalov were still a member of the Flyers, but regardless, Sergei Bobrovsky steps foot in Philadelphia for the first time since he was shipped to Columbus for a string of draft picks. In his first season in Columbus, Bob not only out-dueled Steve Mason (now with the Flyers) for the starting job, but he outplayed everyone else in the league to win the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s top goaltender. Barring injury, it will be intriguing to see how a Mason-Bobrovsky matchup will play out.
9. Flyers vs. Wild, Mon., Dec. 23
The final game before the Christmas break will allow Flyers fans to see Minnesota’s $196 million free-agent heist from 2012 when the Wild landed the two hottest UFAs on the market in Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, who will also be prominent players for Team USA at the Sochi Olympics a few months later. You can attribute some of the Flyers' failures from last season to Paul Holmgren’s endless pursuit of these two marquee players, who didn’t really seem to have much interest in coming to Philadelphia, and after this game, they still might not. It’s also the Flyers' last home game for 18 days.
8. Flyers vs. Predators, Thurs., Jan. 16
It was the seven most tense, and perhaps intense, days of the Flyers' 2012 summer. The Flyers had signed Nashville defenseman Shea Weber to a 14-year, $110-million offer sheet (the largest in league history) and then had to desperately wait a week before the Predators organization matched the offer. Weber hasn’t stepped foot in Philly since touring the Flyers' facilities back in July 2012. Nashville also brings one of the league’s top goaltenders in Pekka Rinne, and perhaps we’ll see future superstar defenseman Seth Jones as well.
7. Flyers vs. Penguins, Sat., March 15
The two cross-state rivals will square off five times in 2013-14, and this game will mark the final one at the Wells Fargo Center. The orange and black crowd always seems revved up for a Saturday matinee and it appears as if the two teams always feed off that emotion. Plus, these two squads may be ready to hang each other by their shoelaces as this will the second game of a home-and-home on back-to-back nights.
6. Flyers vs. Lightning, Sat., Jan. 11
Even though Vincent Lecavalier will have already made his return to Tampa with the Flyers by this time, there shouldn’t be any lack of motivation for him to face the Lightning in front of his new home crowd and a nationally-televised audience on this Saturday afternoon. With the new divisional format, this will also be Tampa Bay’s only visit to the Wells Fargo Center when in previous years they had typically played twice here. Aside from “le Lecavalier connection,” you can’t help but isolate your eyes on the one-on-one battles between Claude Giroux and Steven Stamkos, two of the game’s superstars.
5. Flyers vs. Red Wings, Tue., Jan. 28
This matchup will have considerably more meaning now that Detroit has shifted to the Eastern Conference. It’s also a chance to see the two-way wizardry of Pavel Datsyuk, who’s always worth the price of admission. The Flyers and Wings will have faced each other twice in Detroit leading up to this game, significant because the Red Wings still haven’t won in Philadelphia since sweeping the Flyers in the 1997 Stanley Cup Final -- a streak that has seen the Flyers win seven in a row.
4. Flyers vs. Kings, Mon., March 24
“Flyers West” comes East to Philadelphia for the first time since Oct. 15, 2011. As we know, these two teams have more connections than a flight from Scranton to Tokyo. Now, there’s a few more following the Flyers' addition of Ron Hextall to the front office and the Kings' acquisition of Dan Carcillo this offseason. The addition of “Car Bomb” will only add gasoline to this game's flame. Former Flyer Jeff Carter still hasn’t played at the Wells Fargo Center since his offseason trade to Columbus in 2011. Jonathan Quick, the 2012 Conn Smythe trophy winner, is expected to be the starting goalie for Team USA.
3. Flyers vs. Rangers, Sat., March 1
Broadway vs. Broad Street, Part II. The Rangers will have already played the Flyers at the WFC in October, but I think this Saturday 1 p.m. tilt will have a little more zest to it as we approach the stretch run toward the playoffs. The Blueshirts have owned the Flyers over the past three seasons, but perhaps the tide starts to shift the Flyers' way again. Fans will be itching for Flyers hockey, and this game marks the second one coming out of the Olympic break. By this time, the Rangers should be adjusted to new coach Alain Vigneault and his more offensive-minded system.
2. Flyers vs. Maple Leafs, Wed., Oct. 2
Opening night. There’s always a tremendous amount of anticipation that comes into a new season as Toronto comes to Philadelphia in the opener. How will the defense look with the addition of Mark Streit? How will Peter Laviolette utilize his lines with Lecavalier in the mix? Who will start in net? Many questions surround a Flyers team that will be anxiously looking to prove that missing the postseason last year was a fluke. The Leafs have also upgraded their roster with the additions of Jonathan Bernier and David Clarkson.
1. (Tie) Flyers vs. Blackhawks, Tues., March 18
The defending Stanley Cup champions come to the Wells Fargo Center for their only visit. Will the Flyers be able to keep up with Chicago’s speed and aggressive forecheck that carried them to their second Stanley Cup championship in four years? It’s a tremendous measuring stick for a Flyers team looking to re-establish themselves as one of the league’s elite. The last time the Flyers beat the Blackhawks in Philly, Ray Emery was in net for Chicago. This time, he can get back at his old team.
Flyers vs. Penguins, Thurs., Oct. 17
Does anything top seeing the Flyers' most-hated rival for the first time just eight games into the young season? Pittsburgh comes to Philadelphia just twice (the other game is No. 7 on this list), but this could set an early tone to the season. The Flyers opened last season against the Pens, a 2-1 Pittsburgh victory, but aside from that game, the Flyers seem to be in Marc-Andre Fleury’s head and could have a distinct advantage in goaltending.